College of Physicians Archives Month Philly Recap: Invisible, Not Insignificant


The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia hosted another sold out pop-up exhibit from their archival collections of medical history. The October 10th display, “Invisible, Not Insignificant,” featured mostly 19th century photographs, published medical texts, and diaries from doctors and patients with “invisible” mental and emotional disorders like depression, breakdowns, and other conditions that could be lumped under the 19th century usage of the term “insanity.”

The exhibit opened with this 1899 patient admission form from McLean Asylum for the Insane, which shows the questions asked of the family or friends admitting the patient to the asylum. Most questions are about the patient’s medical history and is appears to have been shockingly easy to commit someone to an asylum.
Visitors also pored over this list of the “supposed causes of insanity” as recorded by the Taunton State Hospital in Massachusetts in the mid-1800s. This list includes “free love doctrine,” “light reading,” love affair,” “bite of cat,” “childbirth,” and “spirit-rappings.”
Attendees were able to view documents relating to the treatment of patients (sometimes successful but often upsetting to modern eyes), like these before and after photographs of women who received Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell’s “rest cure” as a treatment for a neurological weakness believed to be caused by urban environments and the hectic lifestyles of the late 19th century. The rest cure mostly involved separating these women from their families and friends so they could spend time reading, relaxing, and taking calm walks. Something that perhaps we could all do with more of these days.

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